Negotiation 101 for photographers

As an agent, one of the top reasons a photographer comes to me is to help them negotiate with clients. A negotiation is defined as a mutual discussion and arrangement of terms of a transaction or agreement. A complaint I hear from photographers is that there is no negotiation, just them agreeing to whatever the client will give them. This doesn’t have to be the case. The best negotiators do their homework and ask questions. The clients who don’t like to give much info typically are not serious about you shooting for them.

You need to know what the goals are in the negotiation. What are both parties needs? Whenever I am approached about a job I ask, what do we want from this job? We have three criteria, and we hope they all apply, but this isn’t always the case. If one of these things is not in the equation, we pass on the job. No reason to negotiate if you aren’t getting something out of it.

  • Money
  • Access
  • Creativity

When you are estimating a job, ask the right questions. Negotiation requires discussion. They have come to you because you can fulfill a need they have. What is that need? What can you do for them that no one else brings to the table?

Things to think about:

  1. Is this is new client or returning client? If it’s a new client, the more questions you ask, the more you will know if are really in the running for the job. Most jobs are triple bid these days, with a few exceptions. Ask who the other photographers are, and who is the favored photographer. Some clients won’t tell you, but most do. This will give you an idea if you are all in the same league. It also will tell you whether they are looking for a “local” photographer, a cheap photographer, or if you are just an additional number.
  2. Ask for the budget. I find that most long time clients will tell you their budgets and ask what can be done. For new clients, if they say they don’t know their budget, try to find out if it’s a 10K job or a 200K job. This can quickly educate you on what type production it’s going to be. Ask about their history of budgets. What have they done in the past? Are they trying to up the ante or just get something done quickly and cheaply? This is also a place where some negotiating can happen so it doesn’t come out of your fees. If they want more than can be afforded, expectations have to be scaled back. Less number of shots, less days, less talent. What can be scaled back so they get the most for their money, and you aren’t feeling taken advantage of? Do you really need a video casting or can you do a stills casting? Can they back off on usage rights to bring costs down on you and the talent? Can you license additional images on the back end?
  3. Make them HAVE to use you. Jobs are awarded to photographers whose numbers are higher if the client really wants to work with them. Your discussions with the client about the job, your knowledge of their product or service and your enthusiasm to collaborate and create together can make the decision to find more money or negotiate with you much more palatable. Even more so if you are an awesome, nice person! And vice versa, if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and you have to give a bit to do it, it’s not the end of the world. The three criteria again.
  4. Keep emotions out of it. Your work is personal to you, and putting a value on it is hard. But you run a business.

So first and foremost, know your cost of doing business. What does it cost you to run your business everyday? All money decisions and negotiations should be based on that. Ask other photographers or people in the business. Photographers are a private bunch, not wanting to give away their big secrets, but ask questions, find out what people are charging for certain things if you don’t know.

A few things NOT to consider in negotiations:

The promise of more work, and lots of it. That carrot is nice to think about but it’s not a guarantee. If you can get them to guarantee it in writing, go for it but it’s not a common occurrence.

Bigger fees next time. If they think of you as the cheap photographer once, they always will. Be careful of that. The same goes the other way, if you are immediately thought of as non-negotiable and way too expensive, you might get passed up on a great project that has a tight budget but great access or amazing photos.

In the end, you should walk away from a negotiation feeling good about how it was resolved, and both parties should feel content with the decisions. The goal is to make great photographs, make money, make the client happy, and enjoy it. And always over deliver. That will certainly put you in the “worth more money” category. Win-win.

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